Hips and Makers (Sire/Reprise)

Kristin Hersh

By Bob Bahr

The singer-songwriter genre, not to mention the folk genre, is a misunderstood class of music. Voice and guitar can create music that is vigorous, cloying, angry, rigid or liberated. Kristin Hersh's Hips and Makers is a fine representative of the genre; it contains all those qualities and is a potent example of the power of good songs.

Hersh's work on the acoustic guitar never falters – and occasionally impresses, as on "Me and My Charms." The addition of piano and cello perfectly bolsters a couple of cuts, and overdubbing fattens the guitar sound on others.

But the biggest aural attraction is Hersh's voice, which generally follows one of two tacks: a sweet, little-girlish voice that bursts into a strong woman's soprano, and a psychedelic wail that evokes Jim Morrison or Grace Slick. The production pushes her vocals to the front and her clear diction betrays a hint of a Southern accent.

The listener needs all the clarity s/he can get; Hersh's lyrics drift repeatedly to the obscure end of poetry. Hear "I could get a piece of meat/From a barren tree/Nothing ever spoiled on me," figure out the message, then please telephone me and explain it.

Not all of Hersh's lyrics are difficult to decode, and the more obtuse parts might simply need an impressionistic approach. Michael Stipe's presence on the first cut (the best candidate for a single), "Your Ghost," could suggest that the listener approach Hersh's lyrics like one would listen to early R.E.M. The words convey mere moods rather than a narrative or a concrete description.

"Beestung" mixes the obvious with the cryptically personal, with the pricks of a rocky love affair equated to the pain of a bee sting. Hersh's girlish delivery suggests that when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in love, little stings can hurt like a heart attack.

"Teeth" debuts Hersh's psychedelic vocal turn, then "Sundrops" completely overwhelms with its cascading guitar strumming and dramatic cello. Here, the former Throwing Muses leader creates a bold metaphor comparing oppressive summer heat to torrential rain. The lyrics manage to paint a complete picture of both a hot summer day in the city and its impact on someone in a melancholy mood. Unforgettable.

After a brief, uncredited instrumental interlude, Hersh follows strongly with "Houdini Blues," an ode to freedom that I like to think is written in the persona of an African American. The startling "A Loon" comes next, with a vocal performance as edgy as the lyrics, and tight, simple strumming sweetened by a stately line from cellist Jane Scarpantoni. Then suddenly, midway through the song, Hersh adopts a different outlook and musical approach, and the lyrics find her accepting the loony guy for what he is.

Elsewhere, "Velvet Days" is touching and sweet, "Tuesday Night" is a convincing capsule of feverish longing, "The Letter" suggests a mellow, introspective Janis Joplin, and the title track finishes with a light touch. "Me and My Charms" is a mystery, but the effect is not; the song is full of the heart-pounding pain of scorned love.

If originality counts for anything in the music marketplace, Hips and Makers should score well. Regardless, this album's high marks in the Honesty and Potency departments put it firmly in my "high rotation" stack. As if we needed proof, Kristin Hersh shows that there is abundant life in the singer-songwriter genre.